Chris Harman

Diary 1991–2001

Freedom, struggle and constraint

(12 October 2002)

Reviews, Socialist Worker, No.1821, 12 October 2002.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Chris Harman on Tony Benn’s new diaries

TONY BENN’S political journey has been one of the most remarkable in the history of the British labour movement. Many figures have started out on the left, only to become dedicated defenders of capitalism by the time they have reached middle age.

Benn, by contrast, may be in his mid-70s, but he is a tireless propagandist for socialism as he goes from meeting to meeting, denouncing the insanity of international capitalism and the horrors of its wars. He’s been present at every major working class struggle in the last 20 years and still brings life to the most insipid television discussions. The latest volume of his diaries, Free At Last: Diaries 1991-2001, has just been released.

At the time it begins, scores of people who had supported Benn a dozen years before – Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, David Blunkett, John Prescott, Clare Short, even Tony Blair – were following Labour leader Neil Kinnock to the right. They embraced nuclear weapons, denounced non-payment of the poll tax, and voted for the expulsion of socialists from the party.

When Neil Kinnock lost the 1992 election (getting fewer votes than the number of people who had refused to pay the poll tax), their reaction was to move even further to the right.

They backed the conservative-minded Edinburgh lawyer John Smith as leader – and then, after his death, the former public school boy Tony Blair. The most powerful parts of the diaries are those which describe the way the Labour leadership jettisoned the policies of the party’s left and the belief in reform of the party’s traditional “Old Labour” centre and right.

Things like universal welfare benefits, comprehensive education, support for union rights, civil liberties, and suspicion of billionaire newspaper owners fell by the wayside. In April 1991, Benn writes,

“Neil Kinnock was interviewed on television and asked, ‘What is the difference between you and John Major?’ Kinnock waffled.

“He was smiling and giggling and gesticulating. I don’t think he has any idea how bad he is.”

Of the 1992 election campaign he says, “The whole election is just sloganising without any content. It is being run by advertising agents, frontbenchers and lobby correspondents. They intend the electors to be spectators.” He describes the enthusiasm of nearly all Labour leading figures in 1991 for the Exchange Rate Mechanism. This led to the financial disaster of Black Wednesday in September 1992.

As the crisis developed, the Labour Party was “frozen into the most bland and absurd anti-socialist statements in the hope that they’ll occupy the middle ground”. He is scathing about the impact of Blair: “Blair is the most popular Tory leader in Britain at the moment.”

Shaun Woodward, who switched from the Tories to Labour, could say to Benn in 2000, “I feel I’m in the same party.” Reading the diaries reminds you how far New Labour went in embracing Tory policies before and after the 1997 election.

The consequences have been horrible, whether it’s privatisation at home or repeated endorsement of US military actions abroad. After Blair’s speech to the TUC in 1995 Benn writes, “So that’s what it’s all about – satisfying the CBI.”

He quotes his old right wing Labour adversary Roy Hattersley, who told him in 1996, “This is not the party I joined.” David Blunkett’s statements on education in 1997 are “the most ghastly Tory policy. It makes your flesh creep, it really does.”

There is one fault with the diaries, as with Benn’s often spellbinding public speaking. He never really comes to terms with how this all came about. In places he suggests the whole Labour Party approach has come to an end. He writes as early as 1993 (under John Smith), “The Labour Party is dead. It has no policy.”

A few months later (after Blair’s election as leader) he writes, “In order to get anywhere, to be a legitimate leader of the Labour Party, you have to come to terms with MI5, the City of London, the monarchy, Brussels, the press lords and the senior civil servants.”

Historically riot has played a role, because something has to be done to get this representation back, because the vote is only a chance to vote between Blair and Major, and there’s nothing in it. “And the vote only happens every five years so whoever you vote for you’re going to end up with the same politics.”

If he followed these arguments to the end he would be able to see why 100 years of Labour politics and six Labour governments have left Britain’s ruling class as firmly entrenched as ever. Voting does not give people power over the economy, the media and the key positions in the machinery of the state.

A party whose whole rationale is based on the parliamentary approach is never going to be able to carry through any fundamental social change. Benn does not carry these arguments to the end. His whole background of half a century as a parliamentarian prevents him from doing so.

In his diary entries, within a few days of seeing the hopelessness of the parliamentary approach he is slipping back into believing that parliamentary manoeuvres and parliamentary friendships might somehow do some good. So he reports friendly chitchat with Tories and with Ian Paisley, as well as defending going to the funeral of “a friend” – Enoch Powell. At points it is as if he is lost in a maze he knows he should get out of, but really does not know how.

This does not stop him fulfilling a very important service for the socialist movement. But it does stop him showing those won over by his arguments what needs to be done next.

Towards the end of the diaries he writes, “Looking back on my life, I have always concluded that I never went far enough.” It’s for those who are inspired by Benn to learn from this too, and go that bit further, to embrace an alternative that does not depend on the Labour Party and on voting every five years.

From right to the left

TONY BENN did not start out on the left of the Labour Party. As he recalls in the new diaries, in the early 1950s, as a new MP, “I was a sort of New Labour man.” He supported the right winger Hugh Gaitskell against the hero of the left, Nye Bevan.

He also recalls his role as the person who first introduced Labour to US electoral techniques of advertising and razzmatazz – “I was the Peter Mandelson of 1959.” During the Labour government of 1964-70 he was a stalwart of the centre. He was in no way associated with the left wing rebellions over nuclear weapons, wage controls, proposals for anti-union laws or backing for the US war against Vietnam.

Benn was famed for his enthusiasm for new technology and the state-backed merger of giant firms to produce it. What began to change him was the upsurge of workers’ struggle under the Tory Edward Heath government of 1970-4. Benn went to the Clyde in 1971 as an opposition spokesperson when an enormous one-day strike against the attempt to close shipyards was followed by a work-in. He was soon echoing some of the language of the protests and being seen as a banner bearer of the left inside parliament.

There then followed the bitter experience of the Labour government of 1974-9. This government oversaw a massive increase in unemployment, the imposition of enormous IMF cuts in public expenditure and the introduction of monetarism into Britain.

Benn stayed in this government throughout, accepting demotion from the key post of industry secretary to that of energy secretary. This made it easier for the government to beat back resistance to its policies from rank and file activists – for instance, during the firefighters’ strike of 1977 and the “Winter of Discontent” of 1979. But after the government fell Benn became further radicalised.

His campaign for deputy leadership of the Labour Party in 1981 became the focus for all those angry at the betrayals of that government. It also became the focus for all the anti-socialist venom of the media, for whom he was now “loony Benn”.

The media tirade just prevented Benn winning the deputy leadership election and helped the Tories win the 1983 general election. The lesson drawn by nearly all Benn’s parliamentary supporters was that the only way to win was to move to the right, to placate capital instead of fighting it.

Last updated on 11 December 2009